The Rise and Fall of 3M’s Floppy Disk

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A model of this submit initially appeared onTedium, Ernie Smith’s e-newsletter, which hunts for the top of the lengthy tail.

If you ask the typical individual what the corporate 3M does, odds are if they’ve a number of grey hairs hanging out on their scalp, they could say that the corporate makes floppy disks. Now, this was as soon as true, however
in case you look on 3M’s personal web site, you will notice no point out of this legacy—it’s a agency that sells abrasive supplies, adhesive tapes, filters, movies, private protecting tools, and medical tools. (Younger folks, in the event that they acknowledge 3M, it’s most likely due to Post-it notes, or extra lately its N95 masks)

Floppies have had a surprisingly lengthy life—in January 2024,
Japan introduced it would now not require floppy-disk copies of presidency submissions. But 3M obtained out of the data-storage enterprise about 28 years in the past, when it transferred its floppy disk manufacturing to a spin-off referred to as Imation. Imation remains to be round, below the title Glassbridge Enterprises, however with a a lot smaller profile.

One yellow and one orange Imation 3M 3 u00bd inch floppy diskettes on a gray background.

3M’s spin-off, Imation, continued producing floppy disks after 3M itself left the enterprise. IEEE Spectrum

Even with that mentioned, these gray-hairs will continuously declare that of the numerous makers of floppies on the market, 3M made the most effective ones. Given that, I used to be curious to determine precisely why 3M grew to become probably the most memorable model in knowledge storage in the course of the formative days of computing, and why it deserted the product.

How 3M Became a Key Innovator within the Production of Magnetic Data Storage

Now, to be clear, 3M didn’t invent magnetic storage—that was completed by Austro-German engineer
Fritz Pfleumer, in 1928. He created audio tape, a recording medium that began as broad strips of paper coated with iron-powder granules, and finally moved to less-fragile cellulose acetate with assist from what would turn into one other massive title in floppy disks, BASF. At first, the innovation didn’t unfold outdoors of Germany due to World War II.

Nor was 3M the primary firm to popularize magnetic media—
that was Ampex, which commercialized the tape recorder within the late Forties. That was the purpose when magnetic tape become a significant innovation on the planet of music—one which, famously, Bing Crosby obtained to first as a result of he gave monetary help to Ampex. Incidentally, Ampex’s later spinoff, Memorex, represented Silicon Valley’s first true startup.

“Of all the businesses 3M has shed over its 100 years, the two seminal decisions that people point to as most significant involved the sale of 3M’s Duplicating Products business to Harris Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia, and the spin-off of 3M’s data-storage and imaging-systems businesses in 1996 creating a new company called Imation in Oakdale, Minnesota…”

Before World War II, one firm did try to manufacture a tape recorder within the U.S. based mostly on Pfluemer’s magnetic-tape invention. That agency, the Brush Development Co.,
had developed a tool referred to as the Soundmirror, produced by a Hungarian inventor named Semi J. Begun, who was possible one thing of a competitor to Pfleumer: Also a German, he had moved to the United States and developed a steel-based magnetic tape. The invention was utilized by the U.S. navy in the course of the conflict, and the corporate revisited the thought instantly after. But, it wanted somebody to fabricate magnetic tape for it to make use of.

As writer David Morton famous in his 2006 ebook
Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology, 3M was one of many best-suited corporations available on the market to assist Brush out. That’s as a result of the groundbreaking work that the corporate had completed to develop pressure-sensitive adhesive tape was a necessary factor of creating magnetic tape efficient.

Black and white historical photo of a man in worker overall and a cap applying newspaper and tape to an old car.

3M’s adhesive-tape expertise transferred readily to magnetic tape. 3M

Strangely sufficient, Richard Gurley Drew, the inventor of a lot of 3M’s tape expertise, was a musician—he performed banjo in a neighborhood orchestra—when he took a job with the corporate. He most likely didn’t notice he was inventing a key factor of Twentieth-century recording expertise when he noticed that auto physique outlets wanted a method to “mask off” areas of autos that have been being whittled down with sandpaper, however his remark would show helpful to the invention of masking tape.

Zoom in of disordered rectangles on the left and ordered rectangles on the right, over advertisement text. In the mid-Fifties, 3M marketed its Scotch audio reel-to-reel tape.Audio Magazine/Internet Archive/Scotch

As Smithsonian Magazine notes, the formulation he developed, combining cabinetmaker’s glue with glycerin, proved to be simply the suitable stage of easy-to-remove adhesive that it grew to become an out-and-out phenomenon. You would possibly know his invention, developed in 1925, as Scotch Tape.

In 1930, he adopted it up with one other invention that was much more superb—tape comprised of cellophane, which by its nature was completely clear. Another 3M worker developed the tape dispenser, and the 2 innovations reshaped places of work the world over.

So, when Brush seemed to others to provide its recording medium, 3M was nicely positioned to assist out because of magnetic tape’s similarity with its Scotch Tape. Brush finally moved to different producers, like Dupont. But the expertise led 3M to proceed creating metal-oxide tape expertise, resulting in the creation of the Scotch 111 reel-to-reel tape, which was probably the most in style sorts utilized in recording studios all through the Fifties, in accordance with the
Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

I admittedly have lengthy had a fascination with these reel-to-reel tapes. Quite a lot of years in the past, again once I lived in Milwaukee, I discovered a few clean reel-to-reel tapes created by 3M utilizing the Scotch title. I purchased them from a junk retailer, and possibly paid $2 for them. They managed to comply with me by three states and 5 cities, and now sit on
my deliberately organized pile of junk. Based on my evaluation of the container and the logotype it makes use of, they date to the mid-Nineteen Sixties or earlier. (No, I’ve not tried to document on them.)

A hand holds a rectangular package labeled Scotch magnetic tape.I’ve owned this clean Scotch 150 reel-to-reel tape for practically 20 years. It is 50 to 60 years outdated. Ernie Smith

For years, 3M’s reel-to-reels had one of many strongest reputations within the music business; they have been constructed to be of superhigh high quality. But you is perhaps questioning, how did 3M make the leap from reel-to-reel tape to floppies? It appears like simply as unusual a leap as a masking tape firm creating reel-to-reel audio tape.

But, once more, it occurred.

How 3M’s Tapes Went From Music to Data

3M didn’t develop the floppy disk drive, both.
IBM did, and Shugart Associates additional improved it by making it sufficiently small for normal customers.

One 3M 5 u00bcu201d Floppy disk in a sleeve stands against a gray background.3M manufactured a signature 5.25-inch floppy disk. IEEE Spectrum

But 3M, a lot as with mechanical tape, was nicely positioned to enhance on it, leveraging its expertise with mechanical media within the budding computing business. In a approach, 3M got here to media manufacturing from the other way than its disk-selling competitor Memorex did. Memorex began with computer systems and regularly got here to develop and enhance tape-based expertise, which finally developed into floppy disks. On the opposite hand, 3M began with the uncooked supplies and the manufacturing processes, and mixed these into computing’s best commodity merchandise, the floppy disk.

3M obtained into the floppy disk market across the
fall of 1973. It was not the one producer of disks on the market—some names from this period embrace Verbatim, Control Data, Dysan, and BASF. Most of those corporations began with computing expertise—for instance, Dysan labored carefully with Shugart Associates on the 5.25-inch floppy. But 3M wasn’t alone in beginning with the uncooked supplies. BASF, a German chemical producer, has a considerably related company historical past and brand design to fellow thick-Helvetica fanatic 3M. (Though 3M clearly by no means related to the Nazis throughout World War II, so there’s that.)

Four different magnetic storage devices on a purple background. 3M branched out past commonplace floppy disks with a wide range of magnetic-tape storage media.ComputerWorld/Google Books/3M

3M didn’t relaxation on its laurels with the floppy disk both, and tried to push the expertise additional, most notably with
Floptical disk expertise, which Jim Adkisson, who helped create the 5.25-inch floppy at Shugart Associates, developed within the Eighties. A partnership of 3M, Maxell, and Iomega created the Floptical disk, which might maintain 20 megabytes of information on one thing that seemed so much like a 3.5-inch floppy. Unfortunately the floptical disk flopped, dropping out to merchandise like Iomega’s iconic Zip drives.

3M additionally labored in additional specialised media, creating high-capacity optical disks that match into commonplace floppy and optical disk mechanisms, in addition to high-end tape drives supposed for the server room relatively than your cassette participant.

In some ways, 3M was out entrance on probably the most necessary components of computing and was making enormous income from it. But by the top of 1995, these days have been completed. What modified?

3M marketed its floppy disk as extra dependable than the competitors in no unsure phrases.

What Led 3M to Kick a Multibillion-Dollar Business to the Curb

By 1995, 3M’s magnetic-media arm had developed right into a US $2.3 billion enterprise, in accordance with
Time, which made it a major chunk of 3M’s total providing.

But at the moment, excessive expertise—
particularly shopper expertise—was beginning to appear like a nasty guess for legacy corporations. This was across the similar interval that AT&T, nonetheless smarting from misadventures just like the EO Personal Communicator, spun off Bell Labs as Lucent Technologies.

3M’s story, in its personal phrases, suggests the same disaster of tradition. In
A Century of Innovation, a ebook revealed by the corporate in 2002, across the time of its 100-year anniversary, the corporate in contrast the creation of the spin-off, which it referred to as “the most wrenching decision in its history,” to that of its willpower eight years earlier to promote its Duplicating Products Division, which bought copying machines:

Of all the companies 3M has shed over its 100 years, the 2 seminal choices that individuals level to as most important concerned the sale of 3M’s Duplicating Products enterprise to Harris Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia, and the spin-off of 3M’s data-storage and imaging-systems companies in 1996 creating a brand new firm referred to as Imation in Oakdale, Minnesota, close to 3M headquarters. The two choices have a number of components in widespread—each concerned companies that 3M created and, in reality, ranked primary within the market for many years. They have been “homegrown” companies—largely created inside 3M and commercialized and constructed with the vitality of many inside sponsors and champions. The companies have been dangerous as a result of the merchandise have been based mostly on pioneering applied sciences. They not solely modified the idea of competitors; in addition they created all new, international industries. The companies have been extremely worthwhile for many years, and so they represented a major share of the corporate’s complete annual revenues. They additionally produced lots of 3M’s subsequent technology of leaders.

So what occurred? Essentially, regardless of the corporate’s success working in industrial {and professional} settings, doing issues for customers like producing videotapes, floppy disks, and cassettes meant transferring out of its consolation zone. These merchandise, initially developed for companies, grew so in style that they out of the blue wanted to be out there at each big-box retailer and drugstore alike, and, Post-its apart, retail was not a match for the sort of firm 3M was.

But extra considerably, different corporations have been merely higher at undercutting, and per the company biography, that required some robust choices to be made:

While it bought its merchandise for little or no revenue, its competitors bought their merchandise for even much less. Even although the patron enterprise had enormous progress potential, 3M had little expertise with a low-cost, low-profit-margin mannequin.

The markings have been clear—exit this enterprise, although 3M invented it. To keep within the “dog fight” meant 3M needed to make investments huge quantities of cash with a purpose to stay the low-cost producer, with no assurance that revenue margins ever would enhance. “Exiting it was the right decision,” [former senior vice president Al] Huber mentioned.

Seeing what got here after, it’s laborious to disagree. While floppies have been nonetheless a major medium within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, it was apparent that they’d not be sufficient capability for the subsequent technology of information hoarders. It would solely be a few years earlier than Apple would put the primary dagger within the coronary heart of the floppy disk with
the iMac, breaking with custom by releasing a private pc in 1998 with no built-in floppy disk drive.

Imation carried on a floppy-disk advert marketing campaign by the late Nineteen Nineties.

That was a harbinger of what was to return. Within a decade of the choice, floppy drives, compact cassettes, and videotapes—the three key components of 3M’s transfer into consumer-driven magnetic media—had fallen by the wayside. Imation, nonetheless energetic as we speak, is owned by O-Jin Corp., a Korean expertise firm
that principally purchased it for its trademarked title.

Much like its one-time competitor Memorex, Imation is a expertise ghost kitchen. Its former company father or mother 3M, in the meantime, has a market cap of $51.33 billion on the time of this writing.

3M’s Magnetic Legacy

In a whole lot of methods, I feel 3M’s persisting deep affiliation with computing, even supposing the corporate left the sector many years in the past, comes all the way down to the truth that it had a really recognizable brand design throughout its pc heyday.

My first expertise with 3M was seeing its vivid pink brand on floppy disks utilized in school rooms with Apple IIe computer systems within the late Eighties and early ’90s. 3M was immediately recognizable amongst these chargeable for creating the disks we would have liked to load up Number Munchers and Commander Keen, and consequently, its title is without end imprinted into the brains of retro-tech nerds the world over. It is a reminiscence that provides me heat emotions.

But 3M, for numerous causes, shouldn’t be an organization that carries a whole lot of goodwill with youthful generations. For instance, the corporate is carefully related to the manufacturing of a wide range of chemical substances, together with PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate), a key ingredient in Scotchguard and different waterproof supplies. It’s one in all many PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) substances which can be believed to be dangerous to people.

The floppy disks that I and different elder millennials affiliate with an organization that was important to our youthful computing expertise are lengthy gone, shuttled away as a non-core enterprise for a large company that’s finest described as an amalgamation of non-core companies loosely held collectively by a brand and backing in chemistry and uncooked supplies.

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